Sanjaya Baru | India's influence has always far exceeded its hard power

India, that is Bharat, has always had enormous influence on world affairs. Influence is what analysts define as “soft power”. “Hard power”, on the other hand, is made up of military and economic power. It is commonplace to suggest that India has had, and continues to have, far more soft power than hard power. What is, however, not adequately recognised is that sometimes “soft power” can even do the job of “hard power”.

After all, prior to 1947, Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement was an example of how soft power was used to confront the hard power of an imperial regime, resulting in the eventual non-violent overthrow of two hundred years of colonial rule.

Analysts have pointed to the fact that even after Independence, India’s soft power has extended Indian diplomatic influence much further than its hard power was capable of doing. The worldwide end of the British Empire was as much a consequence of the hard power results of the Second World War as it was of the soft power impact of anti-colonialism inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. India’s example inspired anti-colonial movements across Asia and Africa, as well as the civil rights movement in the United States.

India became the “Voice of the Global South” way back in the 1950s as a consequence of the soft power appeal of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru across the post-colonial world. It is an example of India’s soft power altering the global balance of power. One could go further back in history and view the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism across Asia as examples of Indian soft power having global consequences. Given that hard power is defined as military, economic and technological power, the only example of Indian hard power impacting the world was the break-up of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.

In dealing with China too, India has had more success in the past deploying the soft power of its liberal, pluralist democracy rather than the insufficient hard power that it possesses. In fact, Indian hard power has not deterred China as much as Indian soft power has been able to, since it is the latter that makes many developed and developing countries support India. Even the success of the G-20 summit in New Delhi can be attributed to Indian soft power. The mobilisation of the “Global South” and securing the admission of the African Union into the G-20 are examples of the success of diplomatic soft power.

While China still scores in Africa using hard power, India carries weight across the continent due to its soft power. India’s membership of G-20 was in part due to its soft power, given that it has the lowest per capita income among the G-20 countries. It was admitted as a balancer to China, given the sudden rise in China’s profile in dealing with the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98. Even in 2008, the decision to elevate the G-20 finance ministers’ group to the heads of government level was taken to camouflage Western dependence on China in the resolution of the 2008-09 trans-Atlantic financial crisis. On both occasions, India’s democratic credentials rather than hard economic power helped it sit at the global high table.

India’s case for membership of the United Nations Security Council has been made more effectively by drawing global attention to the soft power of Indian democracy and her civilisational attributes than any muscle flexing and display of hard power. A civilisational nation, home to four of the world’s seven great religions, a nation of well over a billion people, home of some of the world’s oldest languages, and so on and so forth. How can any global organisation of nations not give India a pride of place along with the countries of Europe and Asia?

One can go on and on providing examples of the importance of soft power for a militarily and economically still rising India. It was not at all surprising that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a hardcore adherent of Hindutva, led the entire leadership of the G-20 to Rajghat to pay homage to Mahatma Gandhi. Along with Indian music, dance and cuisine, the legacy of the Mahatma was effectively deployed at the G-20 summit to project India’s soft power.

Given this, a decade ago, if the Government of India had denied any involvement in the assassination of an individual on foreign soil the world would have had little hesitation in believing it. The world readily believed that big powers like the United States and Russia carry out assassinations on foreign soil. But India was seen to be different. Even though India has never hesitated to deploy hard power to achieve its national security objectives in its own neighbourhood, India’s State agencies have never resorted to what is referred to as “extrajudicial killings” on “foreign soil”. They have done so only at home.

The recent controversy around the killing of a person of Indian origin in Canada may have dented that reputation, even though the government has denied any involvement and rejected all insinuations. Given that the present government in New Delhi has often claimed credit for its deployment of hard power, its denial of any involvement in the killing in Canada is being taken with a pinch of salt. When a political leadership takes pride in its “muscular” approach to national security, such denials of such actions are naturally viewed with some doubt.

As in the case of individuals, so also in the case of nations, a good and positive reputation painstakingly built over decades, in the case of nations even centuries, can easily be erased by the questionable attitudes and actions of a few in a brief period of time. The negative reputation of an Adolf Hitler still haunts the German people, just as the positive reputation of a Mahatma Gandhi still adorns the global view of India. It is important that a country’s political leadership preserves and safeguards a nation’s soft power even when deploying hard power.

Governments have to sometimes do things for “Reasons of State” (raison d’etat). But they must do such things in a manner that does not bring disrepute to the nation and its people.

Next Story